Angels Among Us – Kindness in Action

Over the last couple of months, we have seen multiple devastating natural disasters including hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires. We have also witnessed unimaginable hurts inflicted directly by people upon each other. Mass shootings. An increasing nuclear threat. Further racial divisiveness. Confusion, rage, and pain.

These kinds of headlines overwhelm me so much that I avoid watching the news whenever possible. Within two minutes of doing so, I  find myself questioning what has gone wrong with the world. The horrors they share aren’t occurrences I can stop or even predict. I have to turn off the incessant negativity of the news so I can find the quiet stillness. The light in the darkness.

I have a large collection of photos various friends sent to me after Hurricane Harvey tore its way through Texas. I have used some of them for various posts, but that story has long departed from the global center stage. Although the Texas hurricane headlines may have faded, the memories of the kindness we experienced in response should not.

The attached video shows pictures during and after Hurricane Harvey, but the truth is that these photos could be from any disaster. The details of the pictures and the corresponding scenarios might differ, but in every crushing moment we experience as humans, tremendous goodness can also be found. Countless people will rise to their best selves during the most difficult of times. We find support so we won’t fall, and humor so we won’t cry. Many of us are back to life as usual in Texas, but disasters of other kinds are always happening to someone somewhere. We must continue to rise up and offer assistance to those in need.

Never forget the good in the people around you. Remember who stood by you in the dark times, and continue to be a light to others in theirs. Every kind step you take on behalf of another matters. Every choice to do good and to act with love counts.

I will never cease to be overwhelmed at the good I see in people in the toughest of times. Thank you again for your kindness. There truly are angels among us.

Love and light always – Joanna

***Song credit – “Angel by the Wings” by Sia – This is a spectacular song and one of my very favorites. I genuinely hope that Sia is alright with my borrowing it for this video, but sadly I don’t have her cell to call and ask to be sure. If you love it as well, please support Sia by purchasing the song from the soundtrack of the beautiful movie “The Eagle Huntress.”

Weeks After Hurricane Harvey – The Recovery in Texas Begins Now

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The photos included in this entry were taken a day ago in a neighborhood a couple of miles away from my own home.  Almost every photo is of a different street that was flooded.  There are countless other subdivisions that I can drive through at this very moment that will look the same or worse.

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The water has receded, but the real work is just beginning.  The hurricane impacts are no longer splashed across the national and global news stories, so many people seem to think that life has returned to normal in southeastern Texas.

24I have been surprised at the number of questions I have received repeatedly over the past week, so I have come to the realization that many people must have the same questions as well.  Hopefully these responses will give some insight regarding why the post-hurricane recovery is a tremendous challenge that truly needs ongoing support from the community.  This entry addresses some of the key questions I have heard.

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  • “Is everything finally going back to normal over there now?”

This question stings every time I receive it, and the answer is short and simple.  Not in the slightest.

28Speaking from a personal perspective, my housing situation hasn’t been impacted, and the only automotive hiccup beyond the increased traffic is that it’s still tricky to consistently find gasoline.  However, the moment you step into an area that was slammed by the floodwaters, it becomes shockingly clear how much life most definitely has not returned to normal.26

  • “The hurricane was weeks ago, and you haven’t received any rain.  Hasn’t all of the water already gone away by now?”

The bayous are still extremely high and will likely remain this way for some time to come.  The water continues to recede, but many people are just beginning the process of re-entering their destroyed homes for very brief periods of time.  Given that some areas had ongoing high standing water for a couple of weeks, the homes and cars display heavy black mold, and the smells of mildew and rot hang thick in the air.

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We have been told of the dangers of entering these homes without specialized masks and equipment, but people continue to return to their (potentially former) residences to salvage any small items they can recover.  The rest is left in mountains in the yards.  Building materials, appliances, furniture, clothing, toys.  Memories heaped into piles awaiting assessment by FEMA adjusters and cleanup by professionals with the equipment to do the job.

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  • “Why were so many people without homeowners insurance?”

 This issue has been broadly misunderstood by many who do not live near water or in a coastal area.  If you are a homeowner with a mortgage, you will almost certainly have homeowners insurance.  That insurance covers instances of theft, fire, and water damage for limited circumstances such as broken pipes or damage from water coming in via a hole in the roof.  Unfortunately homeowners insurance does NOT cover rising water.  There is a national flood insurance program specifically designed to cover rising water damage (examples include storm surge / extremely high tides from the ocean, rising water from overflowing rivers and bayous, and rainwater pooling in the streets that ultimately floods a home).  If you lived 50 miles from the ocean and several miles from a river, you wouldn’t normally be concerned about those bodies of water. If your neighborhood had not flooded ever and you had lived there for decades, it might seem excessive to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for flood insurance.  Correction – it seemed excessive until the statistical impossibility came creeping up our driveways and pouring through the doors.

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  • “Many people knew that they were in high risk areas.  Why did they move there, and why didn’t they have flood insurance after they bought their homes?”

 The flood patterns have changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and we have experienced record-breaking water heights that have never been documented for our areas.  Flood insurance premiums went up drastically a couple of years ago.  If you happened to live in a home that was in a zone hit by these changes, the cost increase was exponential.  A flood policy that once reflected an annual cost of roughly $350 for full coverage jumped to $10,000 or more per year for 50% coverage. This is not an exaggeration.  I am using actual premiums currently paid by a family friend.  How does the average family just find another $10,000 of cash to spare, and how do you sell your home once you have been tagged as living in the danger zone?

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  • “But at least auto insurance will cover the loss of their cars, right?”

 People were trapped in their homes.  The storm pummeled the area without mercy, and we simply could not drive through the dangerous high water that rose at an alarming rate.  (A common saying you hear in areas that flood is, “Turn around.  Don’t drown.”  People drown in high water every time storms flood the area because drivers simply can’t detect the depth of the water until it’s too late.)

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The rain predictions went up with every forecast we heard, and the final tallies were beyond anything we could have prepared for in advance.  People moved their cars up their properties as much as they were able, but there was nowhere to go once the water was several feet deep.  If you have ever been in a severe auto accident that totaled your car, you know how far Blue Book value does NOT go.  Your car depreciates at lightning speed, but the balance owed on your automobile loan does not match that decrease.  Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were lost, and many of these car owners instantly became upside down on their loans.**

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This makes me so angry.  I’m not upset that they wrote the words, “Do not take anything.”  I’m upset that had to say it at all.

To add insult to serious injury, that means that these same people who lost their vehicles now are left without a trade in nor do they have any cash for a down payment.  I imagine that it would be tough work finding a decent used car here anyway given the massive vehicle shortage, but even if you could find one, would you buy it from this area?  Speaking personally, that would be a hard pass, but maybe that’s just me.  Most people can’t afford new cars, and they certainly can’t afford them when they are starting from zero.5

  • “Why didn’t everyone evacuate?”

You had to be here during Hurricane Rita to really understand this dynamic.  Hurricane Katrina had obliterated the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi one month prior.  As Hurricane Rita barreled our way, it sent all of Houston into a panic.  We were told to expect a fierce storm, and families raced to pile clothes into bags and kids into cars.  Vehicles swarmed the roads like ants in a fury.  At the time, my husband and I lived in a patio home by a couple dozen other families.  Only one of those other families stayed behind.  Every other family we knew got stuck on the road for hours, and when I say hours, I mean that the traffic was so unimaginably bad that many sat in their cars for 12-13 hours without ever actually making their way out of Houston.  Some found a way to turn around and head back home, while others were only able to return after the storm missed the city.  People had left expecting to drive a couple of hours and were not prepared to be camping in their vehicles on parking lots once known to be interstates.  One set of neighbors at the time had their grandmother in the car.  She died while they waited.  Yes.  She literally died in their car while sitting on a highway.  I can’t fathom this, nor can I forget it.

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Evacuation was never a consideration for us then, and it didn’t even make the discussion list for Hurricane Harvey.  The last place I would want my family to be trapped in during a 175 mph storm is a vehicle.  For most of the city, evacuation would not have helped.  More cars might have been salvaged, but the homes would be underwater nonetheless.  I’m truly sorry for the lives that were lost, but that same evacuation could have been catastrophic if traffic had trapped families in cars on the roads during tornadoes, hurricane force winds, and flash flooding.

  • “What does it look like today?”

It really depends on where you go.  If you step outside my home or the home of anyone else in my neighborhood, you wouldn’t ever know that anything happened.  If you drive a couple of miles to the east, you will find the homes I photographed yesterday.  If you drive a few miles in any other direction, you can find the same scene.  Large areas lay in ruins.  The word “home” leaves you with an ache in your heart.  You feel the sadness when you see the residents, and there are no right words.

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  • “Are people meeting with FEMA already?”

I have spoken with people at different places in the process.  An area resident I spoke with yesterday told me that FEMA gave her an appointment date 3 weeks down the road.  In the meantime, she was given a hotel voucher if needed.  One of her neighboring families had been fortunate enough to meet with someone from FEMA, and they had given them a payment.  The family received $9,000 to complete all of the repairs on their home.  That was the full payment, and it was $4,000 more than the check received by a resident in another neighborhood by one of my sisters.  Keep in mind that these amounts won’t even cover the cost of having your home gutted let alone sanitized so you can enter it safely.  After that teams must come in to repair and replace sheetrock, electrical, plumbing, flooring, etc.  Then come the appliances, furniture, clothes, toiletries, food, and everything else saturated by the toxic floodwaters.18

  • “It’s tough, but they can just walk away from their house and car loans.  They can start again.  If they don’t want to do that, they can get loans from FEMA for the full amounts they need.”

It’s not that simple.  Not at all.  FEMA loans do not cover car losses, so no change to that problem.  The loans would be for home repairs and possibly content replacement as well.***  We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in new debt.  If they walk away from the homes, those properties will go into foreclosure.  If they walk away from the car loans, they will forfeit ownership of the vehicles.  In both scenarios, good honest people who have paid their bills diligently for years will be slammed with terrible credit scores.  Poor credit severely complicates buying other cars and homes, and foreclosure is visible on a credit report for 7 years.  It’s a vicious cycle, and there are no ideal answers.

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  • “How can I help?”

If you are not in an area that was affected or you are far away, please send gift cards (Home Depot, Lowes, Wal-Mart, Target, HEB, Kroger, etc.) to area locals that you know and trust.  Those people can hand these out to those residents.  Another option is to contact the churches around Houston, Fulshear, Katy, Bear Creek, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Rockport (or any other areas you know who can are doing broad relief efforts directly with the surrounding communities).  The animal shelters also need aid as there are thousands of displaced animals now requiring care until their owners can be found or other homes become available.10

This is not about being a Christian.  I mention churches specifically because we have seen many organized groups of people coming from various churches.  They are working directly with those hurting right now, and their work is having a tremendous impact and reach.  The J.J. Watt Foundation has done incredible things for our community, and we will be forever grateful for the help they gave our communities.  Unfortunately this foundation has stopped accepting funds for hurricane relief and is requesting that further donations be given to alternate relief groups.  There are other widely recognized organizations, but many have noted their absence in areas in dire need of assistance.  Hopefully those groups will be in it for the long haul, but the initial response (or lack thereof) has been extremely concerning at best.9

Please research where you are sending your money if you truly want for it to go to actual assistance.  I would also ask that you please remember the small Texas towns like China, Meeker, Westbury, Sour Lake, Devers, Nome, and Refugio.  These towns are hurting, and they have not received the press coverage or assistance that Houston and Rockport have had.

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If you are in southeastern Texas and you are able to help, please keep volunteering your time, treasure and talent with as much generosity as you can muster.  Please share the names of all good contractors who are giving fair quotes for quality repair work.  We are already hearing about price gouging and egregious job bids by some unethical contractors.  I pray that most will operate with honesty and decency toward their fellow man in need, but many dishonest people will flock to communities that were hit hardest in an attempt to squeeze the homeowners in need.  We aren’t asking for free work.  We are asking for fair work.

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  • “How is everyone doing?”

It’s hard to see this all around us, but we are the lucky ones.  I believe that we were blessed, so we would be able to help those in need.  I drove my kids to the neighborhood pictured in this entry because I wanted them to have some shred of an idea as to what many of their friends are facing right now.  Even though our lives are becoming routine once more, we still hear about this everywhere we go.  Countless conversations include the question, “Did you guys flood?”  Often the answer is no, but frequently the answer is yes.  And it hurts every time I hear that response.

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Every person in the area knows people who are in the predicament I laid out above.  These people have worked their whole lives to give their families a sense of home and safety.  They need us now more than ever.  It is critical that we continue to support and help them – all of them.  This is just the beginning.  The reconstruction of these homes and these lives will be months and years in the making.  Again I ask that you please give support if you are able.  It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture.  Maybe you don’t buy a soda or a cup of coffee for one day, and those few dollars go to a gift card or a local relief group instead.  If you want to send gift cards but don’t know where to send them, please message me, and I can provide you with more specific options.  And if that isn’t your thing, prayers for healing and support are incredibly powerful and always appreciated.

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Thank you for your kindness.  Blessings to all of you.  Love and light always – Joanna

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**Being upside down on a loan means that your car is gone, but you still have a loan balance owed.  The insurance reimbursement you will receive will not be sufficient to fully cover the loan, but those payments are still owed by the (former) car owner.

***I am not knowledgeable in the specifics of the FEMA loan program, so feel free to share via comments if you have more info.  I will update this post if I can confirm those comments.

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Sting

I Remember When

Photo taken on 09/11/2017

I remember when I was a young girl attending the birthday party of a friend. I gave her a shiny red wallet, and in perpetual kid style, her adorable little sister piped up and said innocently, “But Mom!  She already has one like that!”  Her sweet mother was totally mortified and responded instantly with a “Shhh!!!” I was fine. There was cake, and I was at a party. That party was held at her home in the neighborhood shown above. As of today, the whole area looks like this.

Same neighborhood shown here

I have known that girl all of my life and am blessed to call her one of my very best friends. We have laughed and cried together more times than I can count.  We walked by each other in First Communion as little girls, and we walked (and danced and ran) by each other as we proceeded to break one church rule after another throughout graduate school as not so little girls. And now, even more years later, her childhood home (the current residence of her parents) has been sacrificed to the flood. They can’t even go in for an extensive period of time to salvage whatever remains because of the health risks.  My heart is broken for her and for her family whom I love.

The home above is found one neighborhood over. I remember spending the night at this girl’s house and watching Gene Wilder light up the role of Will Wonka for the very first time.  That movie has grown to be one of my absolute favorites, and I, too, still want an oompa loompa nooooow.  That girl had the meanest cat you ever knew. They literally warned us by saying, “Whatever you do, just don’t make eye contact.”  I did this. Once. And baby, they weren’t kidding. Nothing says awesome like being chased by an insane hissing mini-beast with claws.

That same child attended my own birthday party months later. My parents decided to give me a genuine Texas birthday party, and my father was stuck driving a pack of wild six-year-old girls to a little local rodeo a few towns over.  My parents still laugh at the way that girl jumped out of my dad’s car and yelled out, “Mom he got a speeding ticket!!  He got a speeding ticket!!!” as she ran to her parents after the party was over.  It was true.  He did.

On the way to the rodeo, he first had to drive through one town. Of course I never could have known it then, but decades later, I would own a home there.  Even more years later, homes a few doors down from my former residence there would flood.  The image above would be their view.

This is one of the many shelters set up in the area to house evacuees, but this one held a special place in my heart. This is our local high school, and my own children will be there in a few short years.

My father drove through one more town along the way before reaching the rodeo scene.  Had I been a resident of this town then, I would have warned him.  “Don’t speed here!  I mean it.  The local PoPo won’t dig it.”  Unfortunately for him, I did not live here at that point.  He did speed.  They did not dig it.

I do live here now, and none of us has ever forgotten that event.  My husband had to learn the “seriously – no speeding” lesson organically, but I’m hoping that the message has since been received.  My only concern is that I am taunting fate by writing this paragraph, so I expect to be updating you regarding my shiny new traffic citation any day now.

A few blocks over from here (above), my father took all of us to the rodeo.  I imagine that it was like trying to corral a pack of monkeys for him, but to me, it was a blast, and it was incredibly special.

The little Simonton rodeo closed down several years ago, and I wonder how many people still remember that it was ever even there.  Nevertheless the town continues to grow.  Our kids share classrooms with their kids, and we share our hopes and dreams for them all.  Many of those residents are people we now call friends.  The scene is the same there, too.  Soggy wallboard, sopping wet carpet, destroyed furniture, tattered clothing, and shattered memories all heaped in a mountain on the yard and street.

My heart aches for them all.  I feel such sadness for their loss of all that can never be replaced, and that sense of sadness immediately strikes another chord within me given that it is 9/11.

One of my dear co-workers lost her brother to that senseless tragedy.  She has such strength and tremendous grace in the face of that immeasurable loss.  I can’t fathom the terrible ache she must feel, but she keeps going anyway.  Another darling friend is in the midst of handling everything that goes with learning that a parent is terminally ill.  She is heart-broken, but she, too, is incredibly strong.  She will hurt, but she will keep going as well.  As humans incessantly moving through our lifelong journey, that’s just what we do.

We are perpetually tied together in an intricate invisible web that weaves throughout the layers of time.  Sometimes the sadness seems so heavy and widespread, but we must keep moving forward and we must keep looking up.  There are more sights to see and more beautiful experiences to be had.

Take a deep breath.  Be thankful that you can. Send love to those around you.  And let them love you in return.

Blessings and love always – Joanna

 ***Please note that this post was not written as an effort to garner sympathy for myself, and I ask very sincerely that you don’t send that my way.  I wrote this to show how the people suffering these hurts are not faceless strangers on a sensationalized news channel but rather neighbors and friends we have known for years.  I’m greatly saddened by the challenges they are facing, but my family is not personally dealing with the loss of our home or the death or terminal illness of a close family member.

If you feel called to do so, I would ask that you send your hopes and prayers for healing and peace to those who truly need them.  They are all around us, and they are all around you.  If you are the one in that position of need right now, I send my love and prayers to you.  Stay strong and please keep going.  It will get better.  The clouds may obscure the light, but the sun will always be shining behind them.  Sometimes we just need a little more time to let that light peek through.

Thank you to Heidi, Kristie, Kim and my mom for sharing these photos with me.

Sympathy

We Are Never Alone

 

Over the past year, we have experienced many difficulties. I have witnessed extremely hurtful infighting in relationships, our town, and our country. I have seen divisiveness and anger so often that I now refuse to turn on the news. But this storm that has flooded our little corner of the globe has shown me the very best in people. We have received kindness after kindness.

People worldwide have reached out with offers of assistance and much needed prayers. Family and friends we have known for years as well as absolute strangers we have known for moments have offered to allow us to stay in their homes if it comes to that. I have seen so many stories of people working to help and protect each other. This disaster has revealed how wonderful and amazing people truly are. Hope is powerful beyond measure. Regardless of what happens to our home, I know that we will be alright because we will never have to get through it alone.

Thank you for sharing your love, your strength, and your hope. Despite our differences, we stand together and we will always protect each other. We are blessed to have you in our lives.

Thank you. Truly.  Joanna


***I took the video at the top of the post yesterday morning.  This is a teeny creek that catches runoff water in our neighborhood.  On a normal day, you could jump over it in a couple of hops (if you felt like braving the alligators).  It has been raining nonstop since this shot, so no telling what it looks like now.  There is flooding all around us, but we are dry at this point.  Much love to all of you.

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